Addendum to applicable advice

If you see advice in the wild and think somethings along the lines of “that can’t work for me”, that’s a cached thought.  It could be a true cached thought or it could be a false one.  Some of these thoughts should be examined thoroughly and defeated.

If you can be any kind of person – being the kind of person that advice works for – is an amazing skill to have.  This is hard.  You need to examine the advice and decide how that advice happened to work, and then you need to modify yourself to make that advice applicable to you.

All too often in this life we think of ourselves as immutable.  And our problems fixed, with the only hope of solving them to find a solution that works for the problem.  I propose it’s the other way around.  All too often the solutions are immutable, we are malleable and the problems can be solved by applying known advice and known knowledge in ways that we need to think of and decide on.

Is it really the same problem if the problem isn’t actually the problem any more, but rather the problem is a new method of applying a known solution to a known problem?

(what does this mean) Example: Dieting – is an easy example.

This week we have been talking about Calories in/Calories out.  It’s pretty obvious that CI/CO is true on a black-box system level.  If food goes (calories in) in and work goes out (calories out – BMR, incidental exercise, purposeful exercise), that is what determines your weight.  Ignoring the fact that drinking a litre of water is a faster way to gain weight than any other way I know of.  And we know that weight is not literally health but a representation of what we consider healthy because it’s the easiest way to track how much fat we store on our body (for a normal human who doesn’t have massive bulk muscle mass).

CICO makes for terrible advice.  On one level, yes.  To modify the weight of our black box, we need to modify the weight going in and the weight going out so that it’s not in the same feedback loop as it was (the one that caused the box to be fat).  On one level CICO is exactly all the advice you need to change the weight of a black box (or a spherical cow in a vacuum).

On the level of human systems: People are not spherical cows in a vacuum.  Where did spherical cows in a vacuum come from?  It’s a parody of what we do in physics.  We simplify a system down to it’s basic of parts and generate rules that make sense.  Then we build up to a complicated model and try to find how to apply that rule.  It’s why we can work out where projectiles are going to land because we have projectile motion physics (even though often air resistance and wind direction end up changing where our projectile lands, we still have a good guess.  And we later build estimation systems based on using those details for prediction too).

So CICO is a black-box system, a spherical cow system.  It’s wrong.  It’s so wrong when you try to apply it to the real world.  But that doesn’t matter!  It’s significantly better than nothing.  Or the blueberry diet.

The applicable advice of CICO

The point of applicable advice is to look at spherical cows and not say, “I’m no spherical cow!”.  Instead think of ways in which you are a spherical cow.  Ways in which the advice is applicable.  Places where – actually if I do eat less, that will improve the progress of my weight loss in cases where my problem is that I eat too much (which I guarantee is relevant for lots of people).  CICO might not be your silver bullet for whatever reason.  It might be grandma, it might be Chocolate bars, It might be really really really delicious steak.  Or dinner with friends.  Or “looking like you are able to eat forever in front of other people”.  If you take your problem.  Add in a bit of CICO, and ask, “how can I make this advice applicable to me?”.  Today you might make progress on your problem.

And now for some fun from Grognor:  Have you tried solving the problem?

Meta: this took 30mins to write.  All my thoughts were still clear after recently writing part 1, and didn’t need any longer to process.

Part 1:
Cross posted to lesswrong:

(part 1 on lesswrong:

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Applicable advice

Part 2:
Part 2 on lesswrong:

Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The Feynman Algorithm:
Write down the problem.
Think real hard.
Write down the solution.

There is a lot of advice out there on the internet. Any topic you can consider; there is probably advice about. The trouble with advice is that it can be just as often wrong as it is right. Often when people write advice; they are writing about what has worked for them in a very specific set of circumstances. I’m going to be lazy and use an easy example several times here – weight loss, but the overarching concept applies to any type of advice.

Generic: “eat less and exercise more” (obvious example is obvious)

Dieting as a problem is a big and complicated one. But the advice is probably effective to someone. Take any person who is looking to lose weight and this advice is probably applicable. Does this make it good advice? Heck no! It’s atrocious. If that’s all the dieting advice we needed we wouldn’t invent diets like Atkins, Grapefruit, 2&5, low carb and more.

So what does, “starve for two days a week”, have to it that “eat less and exercise more” doesn’t? Why does the damn advice exist?

Advice like, “eat less and exercise more”, is likely to work on someone in the situation of:
1. Eating too much
2. not exercising enough.
3. having those behaviours for no reason
4. having the willpower and desire to change those behaviours
5. never do them again.
6. the introspection to identify the problem as that, and start now.

With this understanding of the advice, you can say that this advice applies to some situations and not others. Hence the concept of “applicable advice”.

Given that the advice, “eat less and exercise more” exists, if you take the time to understand why it exists and how it works; you can better take advantage of what it offers.

Understand that if this advice worked for someone there was a way that it worked for that someone. And considering if there is a way to make it work for someone, you can maybe find a way to make it work for you too.

How not to use Applicable advice

When you consider that some advice will be able to be adapted, and some will not, you will sometimes end up in a failure mode of using an understanding of why advice worked to explain away the possibility of it working for you.

Example: “you need to speak your mind more often”.  Is advice.  If I decide that this advice is targeted at introverted people who like to be confident before they share what they have to say, but who often say nothing at all because of this lack of confidence.  I then assume that if I am not an introverted person then this advice is not applicable to me and should be ignored.

This is the wrong way to apply applicable advice.  First; the model of “why this advice worked”, could be wrong.  Second, this way of applying applicable advice is looking at the scientific process wrong.

Briefly the scientific method:

  1. Observe
  2. Hypothesis/prediction
  3. test
  4. analyse
  5. iterate
  6. conclude

Compared to the failure mode:

  1. You noticed the advice worked for someone else
  2. You came up with an explanation about why that advice worked and why it won’t work for you
  3. You decided not to test it because you already concluded it won’t work for you
  4. you never analyse
  5. you never iterate
  6. you never confirm your conclusion but still concluded the advice won’t work.

How to use applicable advice

Use the scientific method*.  As above:

  1. Observe
  2. Hypothesis/prediction
  3. test
  4. analyse
  5. iterate
  6. conclude


  1. Observe advice working
  2. Come up with an explanation for why it worked.  What world-state conditions are needed for successfully executing said advice, search for how it can be applicable to you.
  3. Try to make the world into a state such that this advice is applicable
  4. Evaluate if it worked
  5. Repeat a few times
  6. Decide if you can make it work.

*yes I realise this is a greatly simplified form of the scientific method.

Map and territory

Our observable difference – in how you should and should not be using applicable advice – comes from an understanding of what you are trying to change.  The map is what we carry around in our head to explain how the world works.  The territory is the real world.  Just by believing the sky is green I can’t change the sky.  But if I believed the sky is green, I could change my belief to be more in line with reality.

If you assume the advice you encounter is applicable to someone, AKA the advice suited their map and how it applied to their territory to successfully be useful.  Then when you compare your territory and their territory – they do not match.  Instead of concluding that your territory is immune – that the advice does not apply, you can try to modify your own map to make the advice work for your territory.


  • Where have you concluded that advice will not; or does not work for you?
  • Is that true?  And can you change yourself to make that advice apply?
  • Have other people ever failed to take your advice?  What was the advice? and why do you think they didn’t take the advice?
  • Have you recently not taken advice given to you?  (What was it? and) Why?  Is there a way to make that advice more useful?

Epistemic status: trying not to do it wrong.

Meta: I have been trying to write this for months and months.  Owing to my new writing processes, I am seeing a lot more success.  Writing this out has only taken 2 hours today, but that doesn’t count the 5 hours I had put into earlier versions that I nearly entirely deleted.  It also doesn’t count that passive time of thinking about how to explain this over the months and months that I have had this idea floating around in my head.  Including explaining it at a local Dojo and having a few conversations about it.  For this reason I would put the total time spent on this post at 22 hours.

Cross posted to Lesswrong:

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Filter on the way in, Filter on the way out…

I’d like to quote tact filters by Jeff Bigler:

All people have a “tact filter”, which applies tact in one direction to everything that passes through it. Most “normal people” have the tact filter positioned to apply tact in the outgoing direction. Thus whatever normal people say gets the appropriate amount of tact applied to it before they say it. This is because when they were growing up, their parents continually drilled into their heads statements like, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

“Nerds,” on the other hand, have their tact filter positioned to apply tact in the incoming direction. Thus, whatever anyone says to them gets the appropriate amount of tact added when they hear it. This is because when nerds were growing up, they continually got picked on, and their parents continually drilled into their heads statements like, “They’re just saying those mean things because they’re jealous. They don’t really mean it.”

When normal people talk to each other, both people usually apply the appropriate amount of tact to everything they say, and no one’s feelings get hurt. When nerds talk to each other, both people usually apply the appropriate amount of tact to everything they hear, and no one’s feelings get hurt. However, when normal people talk to nerds, the nerds often get frustrated because the normal people seem to be dodging the real issues and not saying what they really mean. Worse yet, when nerds talk to normal people, the normal people’s feelings often get hurt because the nerds don’t apply tact, assuming the normal person will take their blunt statements and apply whatever tact is necessary.

So, nerds need to understand that normal people have to apply tact to everything they say; they become really uncomfortable if they can’t do this. Normal people need to understand that despite the fact that nerds are usually tactless, things they say are almost never meant personally and shouldn’t be taken that way. Both types of people need to be extra patient when dealing with someone whose tact filter is backwards relative to their own.

Later edit for clarification: I don’t like the Nerd|Normal dichotomy because those words have various histories and baggage associated with them, so I renamed them (Stater, listener, Launch filter, Landing filter).  “Normal” is pretty unhelpful when trying to convey a clear decision about what’s good or bad.

Okay; so Tact filters.  But what should we really do?  What’s better?  Jeff’s Nerd or Normal?  And more importantly – In future ambiguous cases – what should we do?

Moving parts to this system

There are a few moving parts to tact, I am going to lay them out:

  • Stater – the person stating something
  • Statement – the thing being said
  • Listener – the person hearing it, or the person who it is intended to be directed to.
  • Tact filter – the filter that turns the Statement into a clean one.
  • Launch responsibility – the Stater’s responsibility to launch the statement in certain ways. (Jeff’s normal)
  • Landing responsibility – The listener’s responsibility to receive the statement in certain ways. (Jeff’s nerd)

In a chart it looks like this:
tact filters2

Who is responsible?

In Landing responsible culture, you are responsible for the incoming tact.

tact filters5

But this isn’t great because it labels anyone you are talking to as “potential jerks”.

In Launch responsible culture:
tact filters6
The responsibility to be tactful prepares the statement for a sensitive person.  Which isn’t great either.  Tact takes time, takes energy and effort, what if no one ever needed to be tactful?  Everything would also be fast.

The wild

So this is real life now.  You don’t really know if the other person is tactful or sensitive or a jerk or just normal…  The best possible plan for unknowns:

It’s not rocket science.  Said again:

  1. actively be less offensive when you say things that might be taken offensively
  2. actively be less offended when you hear things that sound offensive

Q: But it’s not my responsibility because I live in (Launch | Listener) responsibility land.

A: yes it is!  No you don’t!  You live on earth.  In the real world, where you sometimes encounter people living in the other land.  Which is a fact.  You can choose to piss them off when you meet them but you should know that’s a choice and up to you.  And now that you know this; the responsibility is on you to make the better choice.

Compounding factors

Even this model leaves out all the further compounding factors.

  1. What if the Stater thinks a statement is tactful but that same statement is taken as non-tactful by the listener?
  2. What if the stater is used to their statements being taken as tactful on every day except today?
  3. What if the particular pair of stater-listener has an existing negative relationship?

I don’t know.  Err on the side of caution.


  • What other communication habits have a filter?  Does it pay to err on the side of caution?
  • Aside from the fallacy of the middle, can this become a rule?

Another solution:

Meta: this post was inspired by Sam’s post on a similar topic.

Meta: this took 2 hours to think about, write and draw out what I meant.

Cross posted to Lesswrong:

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Mental models – Giving people personhood and taking it away

This post is about the Kegan levels of self development.  If you don’t know what that is, this post might still be interesting to you but you might be missing some key structure to understand where it fits among that schema.  More information can be found here (

I am not ready to definitely accept the Kegan levels as a useful model because often it makes retrospective predictions.  Rather than predictions of the future.  A model is only as useful as what it can predict, so if it can’t be used on the fly when you want to explain the universe you might as well throw it out.  Having said that, this idea is interesting.

When I was little, people fell into different categories.  There was my parents – the olderClass humans (going to refer to them as Senior-humans), my siblings – which, as I grew up turned into my age-group humans and through school – my peergroup humans.

People like doctors fell into SeniorClass, Dentists, Vets, Plumbers, PIC (People In Charge) – all fell into the SeniorClass of humans.  A big one was teachers – they were all PIC.  A common trope among children is that the teachers sleep at school.  Or to use a gaming term – we feel as though they are the NPC’s of that part of our journey in life.

As far as I can tell (from trying to pinpoint this today); the people I meet on my own terms become peergroup humans.  Effectively friends.  People I meet not on my terms; as well as strangers – first join some kind of seniorclass of humans, if I get to know them enough they transition to my peergroup.  Of course this is a bit strange because on the one hand I imagine I want to be friends with the PIC, or the senior-class humans because of the opportunity to get ahead in life.  the good ol’ I know a guy who know’s a guy.  Which is really not what a peergroup constitutes.

Peergroup humans are not “A guy with skills” much as we might hope for; they are (hopefully) all at our own, or near our own skill level.  (on Kegan’s stage 3) people who’s opinions and ideas we care about because they are similar to us.

Recently I have noticed events that have taken some of my long term SeniorClass and shift them into my peergroup.  Effectively “demoting” them from “Professional” to “human”.  When I think “person has their shit together” or “person doesn’t have their shit together”.  I guess there were always people who seemed to have their shit together.  Now that I am an adult it’s clear that less and less people are competent and more and more people are winging it through their lives.  It’s mildly uncomfortable to think of people as being less “together” than I thought they were.

The other place where it’s been an uncomfortable transition is in my memory.  I will from time to time think back to a time when I deferred judgement, decision making capacity, or high-level trust in someone else having my own best interests at heart – where now looking back retrospectively they were just as lost and confused as I was in some of those situations, but they had a little kid to take care of/be in charge of/be in seniority to.

What I wonder about this process of demoting people is – what if instead of demoting my adults as they prove their humanity; I instead promote all the humans to Senior-Class.  What would that do to my model of humans?  And I guess I don’t really know where I stand.  Am I an adult?  Am I a peer?  I have always been an observer…

I’m not really getting at anything with this post.  Just interesting to observe this reclassification happening and fit kegan’s stages around it.  Obviously some of the way that I sorted Senior-class humans is particularly relevant to a stage 3 experience of how I managed my relationships when I was smaller.  I also wonder that given the typical mind – whether this is normal or unusual.

Question for today:

  • Do you divide people into “advanced” and “equal” and “simpler” – (or did you do it when you were younger?)
  • Do people ever change category on you?  In which direction?  What do you do about that?
  • Assuming I am on some kind of path of gradually increasing understanding and growing and changing models of the world around me – what is next?

Meta: this took 3 hours to write over a few days.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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Setting up my work environment – Doing the causation backwards

About two years ago, when I first got my smart phone (yes, later than most of the other humans).  I was new to apps, and I was new to environments.  When I decided on what apps should be on my home screen, I picked the ones that I thought I would use most often.

My home screen started with:

  • google bar (the top of the page)
  • calendar
  • facebook
  • notepad app (half the page)
  • ingress (because I play)
  • maps
  • camera
  • torch

My home screen has barely changed.  I don’t play ingress very often these days, but that’s by choice, however I was seeing the facebook notifications far too often.  Ending up on facebook far too often for what I wanted.

Recently I decided to try out some tracking systems that include 1/0 metrics.  It looks something like this:


I wanted this in a place where I could see it and fill it out every day, and at the same time I began to question why I have my facebook app on my front page.  This link is now on my front page and I easily fill it out once a day (a win for a habit successfully implemented).

The concept that I want to impart today is that the causation goes the wrong way.  Instead of wanting apps that I regularly use on my front page so that I can easily access them – I want apps that I want to use regularly on my front page.  That way I will tend to develop habits of regularly using them instead of the other ones.


This applies to the refrigerator too.  Instead of the things you use and eat all the time being at the front (assuming they might be different), you want the foods that you want to eat most readily accessible and at the front.  If this means healthy foods at the front – do that.  If this means having a fruit bowl on the table – do that.


This applies to TV too.  If you find book-reading more interesting than TV watching but find yourself watching a lot of TV all the same; put the remotes in a harder to reach place and leave really good books lying around.

Computer shortcuts

Want to play less games?  Get to Reddit less?  Maybe put the games in slightly harder to access places.  Buried in other folders.  Delete the auto-fill in your browser that completes to Reddit.  Want to do equations by hand more often than using a calculator (for practicing math purposes) – make the calculator slightly harder to get to, and make sure you have a pen/paper handy around the computer.

Junk food

Do you have a candy cupboard?  Find yourself eating too much of it.  A simple answer would be to empty it, and don’t fill it again.  But an alternative that still lets you have candy in the house is to place slightly healthier and tasty food choices in front of the candy.  for example dried fruit – still sweet and bite-sized, in a similar class of choices to Candy, but significantly healthier.  Some days you will reach past the dried fruit for the chocolate, and many more days you will reach for the dried fruits.

The meta strategy

Without creating more examples.  There are often behaviours you want to do better, actions that you want to take instead of other actions, or behaviours that have a “better form” than you might otherwise be doing.

The strategy is:

  1. Take 5 minutes writing out what you usually do on a daily basis
  2. For each one, consider if this is the optimum form of the action, (or one that leads to acceptable levels of results) – don’t be afraid to dream of the possible optimal actions.
  3. Make the better option more available in your life.
  4. Make it easier for yourself to do the better option.
  5. Check progress in a month (put a reminder in your diary) and iterate on solutionspace
  6. Winning!

We know about System 1 and System 2.  We live some of our life in S1 and some in S2.  S2 know’s it’s not always going to be “in charge” and making deliberate actions but it does have periods of lucid thought in which to set up S1 with better easiest-path behaviours and actions.  This applies to planning, setting up a workspace, avoiding the pain of paying and many more.

Think: How can I set this up so that I do the better possible path in the future with the least effort?

Cross posted to Lesswrong:

Meta: this post took 2hrs to write.

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Low hanging productivity – improving your workspace

Tl;dr – Simple changes to workspaces like a big screen can make a big difference.

This week I spent a few days away from my usual desk.  I have been house sitting.  I didn’t think too much of it; I tend to carry with me a portable lifestyle.  My laptop, some power blocks for my phone, and various supplies that make for easy “office”-ing around the place.  I usually don’t carry a charger with me because when I know I will be gone a while I will take it with me.

I have always liked a portable office.  The ability to stop, and continue later at ease was always important to me.  However recently I moved into a new place and set up a desk.  I figured I would tryX where X is workspaces (a post for the future).  I never set up a workspace for the reason of it not being portable.  The interesting thing that has surprised me this week is that I miss my big screen (which was a gift – I might have never bought myself a big screen).

For whatever reason, the ability to view more space at once makes me more productive.  Combined with Linux’s natural tendencies to have several desktop environments with simple switching.  My laptop screen is about 19in.  Which is plenty.  The new screen is about 1.5x that.  I never thought it would be useful, it took me years to do it.  If it broke today, I would be willing to spend up to $900 to get it back (which is more than six times the price of a new screen).  Right now I wonder how productive I might be with a 3rd screen… Or a 4th.  (or a 3D virtual reality work environment with screenspace limited by my eyeballs not my screen resolution…)

I feel like (along with other habits) I am probably working at 120% of what I was working before.  A fair chunk of which I owe to the extra screenspace.

Questions for today:

  1. What part do you remember adding to your workspace to help you be more productive.
  2. What’s the coolest most awesome or productive workspace that you have seen in action?  How hard would that be to get for yourself?
  3. How can you make your current workspace a tiny bit more productive in anticipation for things you have to do tomorrow?

Meta:  This took 45mins to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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People who lie about how much they eat are jerks

Weight loss journey is a long and complicated problem solving adventure.  This is one small factor that adds to the confusion.  You probably have that one friend.  Appears to eat a whole bunch, and yet doesn’t put on weight.  If you ever had that conversation it goes something like,

“How are you so thin?”
“raah raah metabolism”
“raah raah I dont know why I don’t put on weight”
“Take advantage of the habit”

Well I have had enough.  You’re wrong.  You’re lying and you probably don’t even know it.  It’s not possible. (Within a reasonable scope of human variation) Calories and energy are a black box system.  Calories in, work out, leftovers become weight gain, deficit is weight loss.  If a human could eat significantly more calories for the same amount of work and not put on weight we would be prodding them in a lab for breaking the laws of physics on conservation of mass and conservation of energy.

So this is you, you say you gain weight no matter what you eat and that’s scientifically impossible.  Now what?  You probably don’t mean to break the laws of physics (and you probably don’t actually break them).  You genuinely absentmindedly don’t notice when you scoff down whole plates of food and when you skip dinner because you didn’t feel like it (and absentmindedly balance the calories automatically).  It’s all the same to you because you naturally do that.

This very likely is about habits, and natural habits that people have.  If for example John has the habit of getting home and going to the fridge, making dinner because it’s usually the evening.  Wendy doesn’t have the habit.  She eats when she is hungry.  Not having a set mealtime sometimes means that she gets tired-hungry and has a state of being too exhausted to decide what to eat and too hungry to do anything else that would help solve the problem.  But for Wendy she doesn’t get home and automatically cook dinner.  (good things and bad things come from habits.)

Wendy and John go to a big lunch together.  They both eat 150% of the calories they should be eating for that meal, and they don’t mind – enjoying food is part of enjoying life.  It was a fancy restaurant with good food.  Later that evening when Wendy gets home she doesn’t feel hungry and goes off to read a book or talk to friends on the internet.  Eventually she has a light snack (of 10% of her “dinner” calories) and heads off to totalling 160% of the calories for the two meals.  Effectively under-eating for the day.  John on the other hand, has his habit of heading home and making dinner.  Even after the big lunch, his automatic systems take over and he makes and ordinary dinner of 100% of his calories for that meal.  John’s total for that day is 250% for two meals or effectively half a meal extra for that day.

If W and J do this every week (assuming the rest of their diets are perfectly balanced), John will have an upwards trajectory and Wendy will have a downwards one.  John might ask Wendy how she stays so skinny, and Wendy wouldn’t know.  After all they eat about the same amount when they are together.

No one understands this.

What can we do about it?

1. We can hire scientists to follow both J and W around for a week and write down every time they eat something. (this is impractical – maybe if we are in an isolated environment like a weekend retreat it would be easier to do this)
2. We can get them to self report via an app (but people are usually pretty bad at that)
3. We can try ask more specifically, “what do you eat in a day?”, or “what have you eaten since this time yesterday?” and gather data points to try to build a picture of what a person eats.
4. We can search for people with similar habits around food to us and ask them how they stay healthy.
5. We can look for people with successful habits around food, ask them for advice and then figure out why that advice works, and how to make that advice work for us.

On the noticing level.  You should notice that every single thing that you eat adds to your caloric intake. Every single piece of work you do adds to your burn.  It’s easier to eat another piece of chocolate (for 5 seconds) than run another 15minutes to burn that chocolate off.  If something is not working towards your dieting success it’s probably working against it.

Meta: this took one hour to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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The application of the secretary problem to real life dating

The following problem is best when not described by me:

Although there are many variations, the basic problem can be stated as follows:

  • There is a single secretarial position to fill.
  • There are n applicants for the position, and the value of n is known.
  • The applicants, if seen altogether, can be ranked from best to worst unambiguously.
  • The applicants are interviewed sequentially in random order, with each order being equally likely.
  • Immediately after an interview, the interviewed applicant is either accepted or rejected, and the decision is irrevocable.
  • The decision to accept or reject an applicant can be based only on the relative ranks of the applicants interviewed so far.
  • The objective of the general solution is to have the highest probability of selecting the best applicant of the whole group. This is the same as maximizing the expected payoff, with payoff defined to be one for the best applicant and zero otherwise.


After reading that you can probably see the application to real life.  There are a series of bad and good assumptions following, some are fair, some are not going to be representative of you.  I am going to try to name them all as I go so that you can adapt them with better ones for yourself.  Assuming that you plan to have children and you will probably be doing so like billions of humans have done so far in a monogamous relationship while married (the entire set of assumptions does not break down for poly relationships or relationship-anarchy, but it gets more complicated).  These assumptions help us populate the Secretary problem with numbers in relation to dating for the purpose of children.

If you assume that a biological female’s clock ends at 40. (in that its hard and not healthy for the baby if you try to have a kid past that age), that is effectively the end of the pure and simple biological purpose of relationships. (environment, IVF and adoption aside for a moment).  (yes there are a few more years on that)

For the purpose of this exercise – as a guy – you can add a few years for the potential age gap you would tolerate. (i.e. my parents are 7 years apart, but that seems like a big understanding and maturity gap – they don’t even like the same music), I personally expect I could tolerate an age gap of 4-5 years.

If you make the assumption that you start your dating life around the ages of 16-18. that gives you about [40-18=22]  22-24 (+5 for me as a male), years of expected dating potential time.

If you estimate the number of kids you want to have, and count either:

3 years for each kid OR

2 years for each kid (+1 kid – AKA 2 years)

(Twins will throw this number off, but estimate that they take longer to recover from, or more time raising them to manageable age before you have time to have another kid)

My worked example is myself – as a child of 3, with two siblings of my own I am going to plan to have 3 children. Or 8-9 years of child-having time. If we subtract that from the number above we end up with 11-16 (16-21 for me being a male) years of dating time.

Also if you happen to know someone with a number of siblings (or children) and a family dynamic that you like; then you should consider that number of children for yourself. Remember that as a grown-up you are probably travelling through the world with your siblings beside you.  Which can be beneficial (or detrimental) as well, I would be using the known working model of yourself or the people around you to try to predict whether you will benefit or be at a disadvantage by having siblings.  As they say; You can’t pick your family – for better and worse.  You can pick your friends, if you want them to be as close as a default family – that connection goes both ways – it is possible to cultivate friends that are closer than some families.  However you choose to live your life is up to you.

Assume that once you find the right person – getting married (the process of organising a wedding from the day you have the engagement rings on fingers); and falling pregnant (successfully starting a viable pregnancy) takes at least a year. Maybe two depending on how long you want to be “we just got married and we aren’t having kids just yet”. It looks like 9-15 (15-20 for male adjusted) years of dating.

With my 9-15 years; I estimate a good relationship of working out whether I want to marry someone, is between 6 months and 2 years, (considering as a guy I will probably be proposing and putting an engagement ring on someone’s finger – I get higher say about how long this might take than my significant other does.), (This is about the time it takes to evaluate whether you should put the ring on someone’s finger).  For a total of 4 serious relationships on the low and long end and 30 serious relationships on the upper end. (7-40 male adjusted relationships)

Of course that’s not how real life works. Some relationships will be longer and some will be shorter. I am fairly confident that all my relationships will fall around those numbers.

I have a lucky circumstance; I have already had a few serious relationships (substitute your own numbers in here).  With my existing relationships I can estimate how long I usually spend in a relationship. (2year + 6 year + 2month + 2month /4 = 2.1 years). Which is to say that I probably have a maximum and total of around 7-15 relationships before I gotta stop expecting to have kids, or start compromising on having 3 kids.

 A solution to the secretary equation

A known solution that gives you the best possible candidate the most of the time is to try out 1/e candidates (or roughly 36%), then choose the next candidate that is better than the existing candidates. For my numbers that means to go through 3-7 relationships and then choose the next relationship that is better than all the ones before.

I don’t quite like that.  It depends on how big your set is; as to what the chance of you having the best candidate in the first 1/e trials and then sticking it out till the last candidate, and settling on them.  (this strategy has a ((1/n)*(1/e)) chance of just giving you the last person in the set – which is another opportunity cost risk – what if they are rubbish? Compromise on the age gap, the number of kids or the partners quality…)  If the set is 7, the chance that the best candidate is in the first 1/e is 5.26% (if the set is 15 – the chance is much lower at 2.45%).

Opportunity cost

Each further relationship you have might be costing you another 2 years to get further out of touch with the next generation (kids these days!)  I tend to think about how old I will be when my kids are 15-20 am I growing rapidly out of touch with the next younger generation?  Two years is a very big opportunity spend – another 2 years could see you successfully running a startup and achieving lifelong stability at the cost of the opportunity to have another kid.  I don’t say this to crush you with fear of inaction; but it should factor in along with other details of your situation.

A solution to the risk of having the best candidate in your test phase; or to the risk of lost opportunity – is to lower the bar; instead of choosing the next candidate that is better than all the other candidates; choose the next candidate that is better than 90% of the candidates so far.  Incidentally this probably happens in real life quite often.  In a stroke of, “you’ll do”…

Where it breaks down

Real life is more complicated than that. I would like to think that subsequent relationships that I get into will already not suffer the stupid mistakes of the last ones; As well as the potential opportunity cost of exploration. The more time you spend looking for different partners – you might lose your early soul mate, or might waste time looking for a better one when you can follow a “good enough” policy. No one likes to know they are “good enough”, but we do race the clock in our lifetimes. Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.

As someone with experience will know – we probably test and rule out bad partners in a single conversation, where we don’t even get so far as a date.  Or don’t last more than a week. (I. E the experience set is growing through various means).

People have a tendency to overrate the quality of a relationship while they are in it, versus the ones that already failed.

Did I do something wrong? 

“I got married early – did I do something wrong (or irrational)?”

No.  equations are not real life.  It might have been nice to have the equation, but you obviously didn’t need it.  Also this equation assumes a monogamous relationship.  In real life people have overlapping relationships, you can date a few people and you can be poly. These are all factors that can change the simple assumptions of the equation.

Where does the equation stop working?

Real life is hard.  It doesn’t fall neatly into line, it’s complicated, it’s ugly, it’s rough and smooth and clunky.  But people still get by.  Don’t be afraid to break the rule.

Disclaimer: If this equation is the only thing you are using to evaluate a relationship – it’s not going to go very well for you.  I consider this and many other techniques as part of my toolbox for evaluating decisions.

Should I break up with my partner?

What? no!  Following an equation is not a good reason to live your life.

Does your partner make you miserable?  Then yes you should break up.

Do you feel like they are not ready to have kids yet and you want to settle down?  Tough call.  Even if they were agents also doing the equation; An equation is not real life.  Go by your brain; go by your gut.  Don’t go by just one equation.

Expect another post soon about reasonable considerations that should be made when evaluating relationships.

The given problem makes the assumption that you are able to evaluate partners in the sense that the secretary problem expects.  Humans are not all strategic and can’t really do that.  This is why the world is not going to perfectly follow this equation.  Life is complicated; there are several metrics that make a good partner and they don’t always trade off between one another.

Meta: writing time – 3 hours over a week; 5+ conversations with people about the idea, bothering a handful of programmers and mathematicians for commentary on my thoughts, and generally a whole bunch of fun talking about it.  This post was started on the slack channel when someone asked a related question.

Originally posted on lesswrong:

Let me know if this post was helpful or if it worked for you or why not.

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The meta-strategy – Against the five love languages

You are in a relationship, someone made some objection about communication, you don’t seem to understand what’s going on.  Many years later you find yourself looking back at the relationship and reflecting with friends.  That’s when someone brings up The Five Love Languages.  Oh deep and great and meaningful secrets encoded into a book.

The 5 languages are:

  1. Gifts
  2. Quality time
  3. Words of affirmation
  4. Acts of service (devotion)
  5. Physical touch (intimacy)

Oooooh if only you had spent more energy trying to get quality time, and less effort on gifts that relationship could have been saved.  Or the other way – the relationship was doomed because you wanted quality time and they wanted gifts as a show of love.

You start seeing the world in 5 languages, your coworker offering to get you a coffee is a gift.  Your boss praising your good work is words of affirmation.  You start thinking like a Man with a hammer.  Strictly speaking I enjoy man with a hammer syndrome.  I like to use a model to death, and then pick a new model and do it all again.

What I want you to do now is imagine you didn’t do that.  Imagine we cloned the universe.  In one universe we gave you the love-languages book and locked you in a room to read it.  In the second universe we offered to run you through a new relationship-training exercise.  “It’s no guide book on how to communicate with your partner, but it’s a pretty good process”, we lock you in a room with a chair, a desk, some paper, pens (few distractions) and order you to derive some theory and idea about how to communicate with your partner.

Which one do you predict will yield the best result?

When I ask my system 2, it is fairly happy with the idea that using someone else’s model is a shortcut to finding the answers.  After all they pre-derived the model.  No need to spend hours working on it myself when it’s all in a book.

When I ask my system 1, it thinks that the self-derived system is about a billion times better than the one I found in a book.  It’s going to be personally suited, it’s going to be sharp and accurate, and bend to my needs.


Which is going to yield the best result for the problem? Self-derived solutions to all future problems? Book-derived solutions for all problems?

I propose that the specific strategy used to answer the problem, depending on the problem (obviously sometimes 1+1 will only be solved with addition, and solving it with subtraction is going to be difficult), is mostly irrelevant compared to having the meta-strategy.

In the original example:

My relationship has bad communication, so we end the relationship.

The meta-strategy for this case:

My relationship has bad communication, how do we find more information about that and solve that problem.

In the general case:

I have a problem, I will fix the problem.

the meta strategy for the general case:

I have a problem, what is the best way to solve the problem?

Or the meta-meta strategy:

I have a problem, how will I go about finding what is the best way to solve the problem?

I propose that having the meta strategy, and the meta-meta strategy is almost as powerful as the true strategy.  On the object level for the problem example, instead of searching for the book in the problem field that is the five love languages you could instead search for any book about the problem area.  Any book is better than no book.  In fact I would make a hierarchy:

The best strategy > a good strategy > any strategy > no strategy
The best book > a good book > any book on the topic > no book on the topic

You encounter a problem in the wild – what should you do?

  1. Try just solve the problem
  2. Try any strategy (with a small amount of thinking – a few seconds or minutes)
  3. search for a better strategy

Depending on the problem, the time, the real factors – the best path forward may be to just “think of what to do then do that”, or it may be to “stop and write out a 10 page plan before executing 10 pages worth of instructions”.

Should you read the five love languages book?  That depends.  What is the problem?  and have you tried solving the problem on your own first?

Meta: this took an hour to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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The problem – analyse a conversation (Part 2)

From part 1:

I had a chat with a person who admitted to having many problems themselves.  I offered my services as a problem solving amateur, willing to try to get to the bottom of this.  Presented is the conversation (With details changed for privacy).

I had my first shot at analysing the person’s problems and drilling down to the bottom.  I am interested in what other people have to say is the problem.  Here we study the meta-strategy of how to solve the problem, which I find much more interesting than the object level analysis of the problem and how to solve it.

I don’t think I got to the bottom of the problem, and I don’t think I conducted myself in a top-notch capacity but needless to say I wonder if you have any comments about what IS TheProblem(tm), how did you come to that conclusion and what can be done about it (for the benefit of this person and anyone with a similar problem).

What is actually the problem?  I have a theory, but I also wanted to publish this without declaring my answer.  I will share my ideas in a few weeks but I want to know what you think and how you came to that answer.

This is a new style of post so I expected some responses along the lines of:

I considered downvoting. I opted instead to ignore after reading the preamble. – buybuydandavis

That’s fine.  It was literally a chat log.  Not for everyone.

I also got some interesting and relevant responses.  There are several and they overlap so I decided it’s best to answer with another post.

Many people narrowed down to a few particularly alarming examples:

  • The most alarming part of that conversation for me was “A few weeks ago I punched a housemate in the face ten times, breaking her nose;” – Strangeattractor
  • Is it really the most alarming part? I would think suicide ideation more so. – Romashka
  • Treatment for mental illness (and possibly organic brain trauma) seems priority #1 here… –CronoDAS
  • Zebra was extremely bad at imagining good outcomes in a way which led to him taking action– in other words, probably depression. – NancyLebovitz 

And then this:

There are lots of problems. If I had to pick only one, it would be that you seem to think there is a single, simple problem that can be identified from this transcript. – Dagon

It sounds a bit as if you are implicitly proposing a principle like “there is always a single underlying problem, if you can only find it” – gjm

To gjm first:

I present “The Problem (TM)” because I suspect in this case there is an underlying problem.  Not always.  Often when problem solving we try to figure out what is the lowest hanging fruit, or what one thing can be changed first.

There was a scene in Doctor Who – The ends of time Part 2 where the doctor is trapped in space on a spaceship that doesn’t work.  Instead of giving up he just (knowing what he is doing) starts fiddling with the heating.  Other characters insist that everything is hopeless and lo and behold; as he fixes the heating; that fixes the engine and the computers and everything whirs back to life and we continue to the next epic fight scene!

Now, generalising from one fictional example.  As rationalists we wish that there really was one thing that you could fix, which would cause the fixing of the next thing and a chain of events that fix everything.  When we look at the accelerating factors, we wish this is how it happens:


We’d be dreaming to think that such a thing can actually happen.  After 41 days we are at 1.5x where we started.  After 70 days 2x, and 111, 3x.  Which is just nuts.  What if I told you that in a month of nudging 1% you’d be nearly 1.5x from where you are.  Not likely, not going to happen.

1 1.01 51 1.6610781401
2 1.0201 52 1.6776889215
3 1.030301 53 1.6944658107
4 1.04060401 54 1.7114104688
5 1.0510100501 55 1.7285245735
6 1.0615201506 56 1.7458098192
7 1.0721353521 57 1.7632679174
8 1.0828567056 58 1.7809005966
9 1.0936852727 59 1.7987096025
10 1.1046221254 60 1.8166966986
11 1.1156683467 61 1.8348636655
12 1.1268250301 62 1.8532123022
13 1.1380932804 63 1.8717444252
14 1.1494742132 64 1.8904618695
15 1.1609689554 65 1.9093664882
16 1.1725786449 66 1.9284601531
17 1.1843044314 67 1.9477447546
18 1.1961474757 68 1.9672222021
19 1.2081089504 69 1.9868944242
20 1.2201900399 70 2.0067633684
21 1.2323919403 71 2.0268310021
22 1.2447158598 72 2.0470993121
23 1.2571630183 73 2.0675703052
24 1.2697346485 74 2.0882460083
25 1.282431995 75 2.1091284684
26 1.295256315 76 2.130219753
27 1.3082088781 77 2.1515219506
28 1.3212909669 78 2.1730371701
29 1.3345038766 79 2.1947675418
30 1.3478489153 80 2.2167152172
31 1.3613274045 81 2.2388823694
32 1.3749406785 82 2.2612711931
33 1.3886900853 83 2.283883905
34 1.4025769862 84 2.306722744
35 1.416602756 85 2.3297899715
36 1.4307687836 86 2.3530878712
37 1.4450764714 87 2.3766187499
38 1.4595272361 88 2.4003849374
39 1.4741225085 89 2.4243887868
40 1.4888637336 90 2.4486326746
41 1.5037523709 91 2.4731190014
42 1.5187898946 92 2.4978501914
43 1.5339777936 93 2.5228286933
44 1.5493175715 94 2.5480569803
45 1.5648107472 95 2.5735375501
46 1.5804588547 96 2.5992729256
47 1.5962634432 97 2.6252656548
48 1.6122260777 98 2.6515183114
49 1.6283483385 99 2.6780334945
50 1.6446318218 100 2.7048138294

Nonetheless we pursue.  It might be important too, to look for the problem at the bottom, otherwise we might find ourselves bikeshedding about the trivial problems.

This week while making the emergency room project, I spent some time looking at other data.  Specifically the (Australian) National Drug Strategy Household Survey data.  Where the first question on the survey was; “When people talk about “a drug problem”, which is the first drug you think of?“.  What kind of information is that likely to yield?  Is it going to return the drug which is the biggest problem in the country?  Or maybe it’s going to yield whatever the media feels makes a good story, (say ICE because it’s dangerous) (weed because it’s controvertial) (or alcohol because it’s the most common)?  Or is it going to yield the one with the most personally damaging reputation (tobacco > alcohol)?

In reality, is the government going to take action on what people think is the biggest problem drug?  Or should the government instead take action on the drug actually killing people?  Are we bikeshedding on this issue?

What actually is the biggest problem, it’s a relevant question, certainly not every time.  but sometimes it’s worth digging into.

To Strangeattractor, Romashka, CronoDAS, NancyLebovitz:

You are not wrong.  The violence, mental health, potential head wound, depression, inability to leave the house, lack of friends, weight problems, exercise problems. Are all very very important problems to tackle.  And I will come back to this.

Some analysis:

I started with simple background questions.  History, etc.  knowing that anything being brought up is probably being brought up because it has special relevance to the topic.  It’s almost like a job interview, when they ask you for your top 10 characteristics, they don’t expect you to tell them about how you can fry a perfect egg (if that’s not relevant to the task at hand).  There is a need to make certain assumptions about the truth and about the validity of the information.

I was previously very depressed, and then recovered for a few years.

Definitely relevant, sets the scene.  I asked, “So you are currently feeling depressed”

Yes. Possibly as a symptom of bipolar disorder (I’ve recently started having manic episodes), or possibly not–I’ve never been diagnosed with that, and until recently had never had issues with mania.

A while back I tried reading the DSM.  While it really doesn’t tell you much about reality it is one instance of a Map of the world, Just like legislation, instruction manuals, guide books, Guides to how a project was done (this is an example of a map of how my process works), and more.  The interesting thing about what the DSM has to say about bipolar diagnosis is that there is a requirement for mania in both the upwards and downwards directions, often affecting sleep, and giving people feelings of godliness or invincibility.

So who cares.  Well; on the one hand; using this knowledge here to ask about sleep is a signal that I at least know a little bit of what is being talked about.  On the other hand I think I got lucky about whether sleep was relevant. (and on the third hand – sleep is a very common problem for people generally and worth asking about.)

I guess immediately I feel quite isolated, very stressed, and don’t know how to proceed forward.

The idea of “feeling stressed” is a complicated one.  On some level, you have an understanding of what “I feel stressed” means.  But on another level – if you spend enough time around different diversely stressed people.  You get the feeling that there is some kind of miscommunication going on.

sorry for the mess meme

Kind of like this one here.  It’s a map and territory problem.  One person’s map of stress is not the same as another person’s map of stress.

ELiot: Is there a specific stress?

I guess; loneliness, numerous tensions with my girlfriend, some financial issues (to a large extent a symptom of the recent mania), extreme dissatisfaction with myself and especially my own appearance, frustrations with daily life, and a general dissatisfaction with the world.

So there’s a list.  But the problem I find with vague lists is it’s easy to see there’s a problem here but harder to address any part and make a difference.  I personally have list making habits.  Something I will one day make a post about.   Which is where this comes from:

I am going to write the list out

1. Loneliness
2. Girlfriend tension
3. Financial issues
4. Self + appearance
5. Daily life
6. Dissatisfied with the world

Which grew a bit by the end of the conversation.

ChristianKl Rightly criticised me for saying this:

Would you like to pick a specific one from the list to talk about?

I can pick one if you like

(Why do you offer to pick the specific issue? Agency is important for getting out of depression.) Unfortunately I stripped out time-stamps which would explain why I offered to pick one.  There are three parts to this problem.

  1. Not picking one would likely lead to more complaining about the issues without solving anything.  If Z was unmotivated enough to be unable to pick one (a worse failure mode) then picking any would be better than nothing.
  2. Leading with any of them would be fine, because I planned to cover a few of them and the conversation would naturally tend to flow onto the bigger problems anyway (as it did)
  3. If one cannot decide between them, they are probably all equally relevant-challenging-problematic and equal gains would be made on any of them from a bit of effort.

As it was – it was relatively easy for Z to pick one.  I generally wouldn’t pick one – even if I suggested that I would.  and well done ChristianKl for spotting this.

Is that bad?

I often find myself not eating until nighttime, or sometimes not eating at all, due to wanting to avoid those stressors.

An important question – is that a bad thing?  I repeat this whenever I see an unjustified badness.  In the sense that it should be up to the individual to decide what is or is not bad.  In theory; not eating is a bad thing.  Possibly to lead to mood swings from hunger or sugar levels, and who-knows what else.  But, that’s what I think; not what Z had to say about why it’s bad.

Is this correct: you feel stressed about not wanting to leave to go buy food. Then you feel stressed about not buying food as well.

And I guess I’m kind of lonely.


When I go out sometimes it’s ok, and sometimes I realise the people around me are crap and I am too and I get even sadder.

later still

And really I don’t want to be staying at home, as that’s also very stressful.

later still.

There’s nothing much I can identify that I really want to do.

and then:

Also I’m frequently very exhausted, and it’s often hard to work up the energy to do those things.

and on:

Well, I really dislike being alone, but I don’t much like most people.

(I think that’s enough for now)

So Z is lonely, but doesn’t want to go out because sometimes it’s crap, but doesn’t want to be staying home, but doesn’t have anything they really want to do, but is also very exhausted and doesn’t have the energy to do things, but really dislikes being alone….

If we looked at the loneliness it wouldn’t really improve the state of The problem because the loneliness isn’t the big deal.  If we looked at the going out problem, that wouldn’t be it, because Z wants to go out, but also doesn’t like staying home, but also if we solved the going out problem that wouldn’t do it because they don’t really have anything they want to do, but if we found something they want to do that wouldn’t fix it because they don’t have the energy to do that thing.  So what if we solve the energy problem?

In the hope that once we solve the desire to go out they will have the energy, and they won’t need to be stuck at home and they won’t feel alone and they can go on to live a happy and prosperous life.  No.  That’s not it.  Once we dig to the bottom of the energy problem we get to an absence problem:

I kind of zone out, frequently. People find that scary.

And down the rabbit hole we go.

I want to be clear that each of these problems are valid problems, each are the most important problem and each need to be solved to dig Z out of the hole.  I want to not disparage the ongoing discussion and identification of problems until we can really get to that root of all things; fix the heating and whirr the spaceship into action!

That’s not how problems work.  Or at least – not how this one works.  At the bottom of every problem is another problem (reminds me of a poem – There’s a hole in my bucket – this is not a coincidence).  We also have a term for getting side tracked from the real work at hand – Yak shaving.

But wait!  What is the real problem we should be working on?  If all this talk is just yak shaving our way down the river – how do we know what to actually work on?

The problem

In this case – certainly not repeatable.  I can’t say how often it happens but I wanted to identify this very clear problem as it sneakily tries to evade capture.  This problem is exactly the process of solving the problem has become part of the problem.  We can’t solve the loneliness without first solving the home problem, but first – having nothing to do, but first energy, but first absence feelings.  It’s a problem spiral.

What next?

Let’s say you or a friend has a problem spiral.  You start talking about it and you spiral downwards, every problem being worse than the one before until you feel absolutely terrible, develop an ugh field and resolve to do nothing at all.  (probably a familiar pattern)

You get in this pattern and nothing gets solved.  To break out of this pattern; I propose a known solution (the scientific method).  Pick one of the problems, set a 5 minute timer (or a 20minute pomodoro, or a whole day to work on it).  Your task is to improve the state of this problem, conduct tests, observe what happens.  It’s the loneliness problem, and it sucks because you don’t want to leave the house.  But that’s okay.  Keep trying.  Don’t try to solve the house-leaving problem right now, just work on the loneliness.  Try talking to people about it, try therapists, try leave the house, try online forums, try anything and everything you can think of.  Take notes.

Notes are evidence, evidence is how we make progress.

Your task, should you choose to accept it – is to focus on making some kind of progress on any one of the many problems.  Then when you are sick of this one, or tired, or done, or successful, pick the next one.  repeat, fail, repeat, succeed, repeat.  Iterate.

I propose the 3 part solution to this one meta-problem is:

  1. pick something to work on
  2. work on it
  3. iterate

It’s unlikely that you solve any one problem the first time around.  If you did – take your winnings!  Walk away!  On to the next one.  But if the situation is (as can be expected) a complicated problem – one that you already couldn’t just solve – which led to the stacking up of layer upon layer of problems.  It’s going to take some time.

Keep at it.  Good luck.

Credit goes to Dagon – There are lots of problems. If I had to pick only one, it would be that you seem to think there is a single, simple problem that can be identified from this transcript.

Well done.

Meta: this took two days to write, and the better part of 3+ hours.

If you are interested in a conversation, send me a message.  No guarantees we can solve your problems, but maybe we can try.

This has been a new style of post, not for all – thanks for reading.

Cross posted:

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